Cover Three generations together: Tunku Khadijah and her daughter Datin Sri Lara Hussein and granddaughter Natalya

As she turns 90 in October, Datin Paduka Tunku Khadijah takes Tatler on a walk down memory lane

Datin Paduka Tunku Khadijah loves animals. You can see it from the way she happily caresses Wacintha’s neck—he’s fondly called Wally by the family—as he took her gentle ministrations in a calm demeanour. The beloved steed belongs to her granddaughter Natasha, who has ridden Wally at showjumping competitions. Tunku Khadijah’s daughter Datin Sri Sharifah Menyalara (Lara) Hussein, who took up horse riding at a young age, introduced her own daughters Natasha and Natalya to the sport and they eventually became seasoned equestrians themselves, having won gold and bronze medals at the Sukma and SEA Games.

This shared love for horses is hardly surprising, as it was one that was passed down from Tunku Khadijah’s father, Tunku Abdul Rahman, our nation’s founding father. Lara said that her grandfather was very passionate about horses and used to breed them in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. “He’d put them in air-conditioned stables,” she says.

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Above A Mother's Day tribute dedicated to Datin Paduka Tunku Khadijah with a special song 'Mencintaimu' performed by her granddaughter Natasha Wah Idris.

It was not the only thing that was passed down. Tunku Abdul Rahman was known for treating everyone fairly and equally no matter their station in life, and Tunku Khadijah and her progeny are very much the same. Ask anyone who knows the lady fairly well, and they’d tell you that Tunku Khadijah is a people person; she has a way of making anyone feel at ease in her presence and accepts people as they are. She certainly is her father’s daughter as she shares his values like integrity and the importance of family, and they both possess the same generosity of spirit and kind heart.

She also shares the same sense of humour, the streak of independence, and a love for driving fast. As she approaches her 90th birthday, she shares recollection about her life as she walks down memory lane with us.

Born on October 8, 1932, Tunku Khadijah was Tunku Abdul Rahman’s first-born with his Chinese wife, Cik Meriam Chong Abdullah, who according to Tunku Khadijah was “a beautiful lady.” Sadly, when she was a year old, her mother contracted malaria and passed away after a mistaken injection for treatment. Her younger brother Tunku Ahmad Nerang was only one month old then.

Tunku Khadijah’s childhood was disrupted by the Japanese Occupation in Kedah during World War II. Fearful for their lives, Tunku Abdul Rahman evacuated his family to a village outside of Kulim, where they lived in a house owned by the village headsman. Tunku was the district officer then and was busy with his multiple duties trying to maintain order in the town to prevent looting, helping the townsfolk get to safety, as well as liaising with the Japanese Military Administration. “My father came once a week to visit us all. After the Japanese surrendered, we moved back to Kulim,” says Tunku Khadijah who also spoke about Tunku’s famous abduction of his father the Sultan of Kedah from the British, to prevent him from being brought to Penang. “It was a good thing he did. Penang was bombed while Kulim remained safe and peaceful.”

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Despite his preoccupation with his official responsibilities, Tunku Abdul Rahman was a man who adored his children and made sure they could support themselves should anything happened to him. At her request, he got the 17-year-old Khadijah enrolled in a hairdressing course at John Little department store’s beauty salon due to her interest in it. “I learned to do perms, cut and style hair. From Johor I’d travel by train into Singapore and practise for three to four hours a day,” she says of those pre-Merdeka days.

She also learned to do dressmaking and did some modelling in Singapore, the latter of which her father wasn’t aware. Her look turned mischievous as she recalled those times when she did some quick-changing acts to keep up the subterfuge. “My father was very strict and didn’t like me to use dresses that show off your legs, but pants were okay. So I would wear pants when I go to Singapore and then I’d change to a dress there!” she laughs. Traces of the photo shoots she’d done also miraculously disappear when she got home. “I would use a long wig when I took the pictures and then I’d take it all off and wear my normal clothes later.”

Tunku Khadijah would soon meet her husband Syed Hussein Syed Abu Bakar after setting up her hairdressing salon in Alor Setar. As both their fathers were very close friends, she says, Tunku Abdul Rahman suggested the idea to matchmake his friend’s son to his daughter. Syed Hussein was a second son; he just finished his studies and was working as a civil servant. He was 23, she was 21.

Her salon was a thriving business frequented by teachers and nurses, and she was often asked by Malay clients to do hair and make-up for their wedding. “It’s mostly my cousins, so I do it for free,” she says. “They’re still alive, you know. All my cousins that I did hair and make-up for when they got married. Even though I don’t do it anymore, I can still do my own hair.”

As dating and courting were not allowed, Syed Hussein used to go to the salon and meet her there. “He helped me do my accounts sometimes,” Tunku Khadijah adds. One day, they were caught by her aunt who immediately called Tunku Abdul Rahman and urged him to get them married at once as it would be the proper thing to do.

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Soon after their nuptials, Syed Hussein was sent to England to further his studies accompanied by Tunku Khadijah and their eldest daughter Sharifah Intan. Their two-month-old second daughter, Sharifah Hanizah, was left in the care of her grandfather. Five years later, Tunku Khadijah found herself pregnant with Lara. Knowing it was difficult to raise a baby in the cold climate, and with another child, she decided to come home. Seven months. pregnant and leaving behind her husband to finish university at Nottingham, she and Intan embarked on a 21-day voyage on the P&O liner, managing to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s on board. “We had the best time,” Tunku Khadijah says fondly of that trip, which included stopovers in Sri Lanka and India. Lara was born in March and Syed Hussein was able to hold his baby girl in his arms upon returning home after graduating with a political science degree.

For the bulk of their life, Datuk Syed Hussein served as a career diplomat and was posted all around the world: Bangkok, Canberra, Iran, London, Beijing, Los Angeles, New York, Brunei. Says Tunku Khadijah, “My husband worked very hard, and he loved meeting people. When he was consul general in New York, he helped people when they were in trouble; syndicates targeted rich Malaysians who will get robbed of their passports, money and jewellery. So they get stranded, have no money to go home and ask the embassy for help.”

As for Tunku Khadijah, she takes each posting as a new adventure, always ready to make new friends and learn from other cultures. “Wherever we went, I would always join the ladies club and exchange cooking lessons with the embassy people. I taught the Filipinos at the embassy how to cook my famous curry puffs, and from the Thai people I learned to make the water chestnut dessert.” Entertaining is often on the agenda as she loves to cook and feed people; the record was having up to 100 people at one time. She even had five sultans visit her house in London.

Family is everything to this matriarch and she makes it a point to remain a present fixture in their lives. She’s raised her daughters into strong, resilient women and has a hand in raising their own children as well. Lara says, “She’s like a second mother to my girls. She would help me when they were small, send them to boarding school and went to all their graduations. All the graduation pictures, she’s there!”

The doting grandmother recalls taking them everywhere when they were little—ice skating at Mines Wonderland, boating sessions at the lake, sending them for singing and piano lessons. “When Natasha and Natalya were babies, I used to stay up and soothe them when they cry at night,” she adds.

Whatever comes her way, Tunku Khadijah takes it in her stride. She went through a knee replacement and overcame lymphoma 14 and 10 years ago, all while taking care of her husband as he suffered from Alzheimer’s for seven years before his death in 2013. She still remains active at her age, driving out herself to visit her family, eat out or meet with her friends. Plus, this cool grandma has an Instagram account and is great at WhatsApping and taking photos!

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“She’s like a second mother to my girls. She would help me when they were small, send them to boarding school and went to all their graduations."
Lara Hussein

She laughs as she regales this writer with tales of her driving exploits. “I used to clock 170km/h on the highway—people used to say I’m like Sterling Moss!” She also tells of the time she once overtook her father’s convoy on the highway, driving in an MG sportscar lent by her friend. “He asked his bodyguard, ‘Who was that?’ He didn’t know it was me!” Another time was her getting stopped on the emergency lane when she was driving to her nephew’s wedding in Alor Setar. “The police asked me, ‘Tunku, how come you don’t have a driver?’ I said, ‘The driver is slow, taking our luggage!’”

Looking back, Tunku Khadijah says there’s nothing she would change as she’s happy with her marriage and the life she’s lived. Her husband wasn’t rich but it didn’t matter to her nor her father, who always said, “If you’re happily married, it will last you for a long time.” She’s also very proud of her three daughters, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Having grown up without a mother and a busy father, Tunku Khadijah realised that she cherished every moment spent with her daughters and grandchildren when she became a parent herself. To this dedicated mum, it is what gives her life meaning and joy, and a love that will last through the ages.

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